Promethean Age – Book List

Elizabeth Bear's alternate history sequence featuring a remix of faerie mythology. The first two books take place roughly in the present day. The second two books, of which I've only read the first thus far, comprise a duology called The Stratford Man and follow, you guessed it, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth I, etc. The first two books were OK, but The Stratford Man is what's really worth reading here.


1. Blood and Iron

by Elizabeth Bear

Blood and Iron cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 448 pages
Roc, 2006

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

It's always delightful discovering another author in one's favourite genre whose entire oeuvre you want to read after finishing just one book.

Blood and Iron begins in media res, with an agent of Faerie—the Seeker of the Daoine Sidhe—and an agent of humanity—the Promethean Club's Matthew Szczegielniak—chasing the same quarry: a faerie changeling. After introducing us to these two main characters, the book pulls back in scope and reveals the centuries-old conflict between Faerie and the Promethean Club over the fate of the mortal world.

I say "main characters" because it's hard to tell who the "good guys" are in this book. There are times when I hated Matthew and times when I hated the Seeker. I praise Elizabeth Bear for her ability to establish such moral ambiguity. Although she addresses rather tired motifs for fantasy, such as the decline of "old gods" and their replacement with a "new era" (i.e., the death of Faerie and the rise of the mortal world), Bear employs the motif effectively and turns it into a compelling theme.

In addition to her ability to create complex characters, Bear's got a nice ear for dialogue. None of it feels stilted, even the formal tones of the faeries. Unfortunately, much of the dialogue feels like filler, and there are times when I don't entirely understand what's going on. And that brings me to…

…the mythology of Blood and Iron. Bear draws from a global coffer of sources, notably Arthurian legend and faerie tales. She integrates them well, for the most part, but it can become a cacophony of mythology at times. It isn't the synthesis of these myths that irks me so much as how Bear uses it, however.

Just when I thought I had the rules of Blood and Iron figured out, Bear would introduce another element that caused my understanding to vanish. This was not a pleasant feeling. For example, take the antagonist, the Dragon. The Dragon is shrouded in mysticism, and the main characters bow to a complex set of rules and requirements involving her. Any time a character speaks about these rules, the reasoning is cryptic and never straightforward. Even with some human (or at least part human) characters sharing their thoughts with me, I never achieved the same level of comfort I felt with, say, the rules of the Faerie Court in Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files series.

The ending of the story was anticlimactic. I won't reveal too much, other than that the climax occurs during an epic battle, but this doesn't affect the main characters all that much. The Merlin, who is an important figure in the middle third of the book, is marginalized and shunted off to the side.

While I'm very critical of the book in this review, I did enjoy its premise, if not the execution. That's why I'll read more of Bear's work, particularly this series. Bear's a talented writer with extremely creative ideas—I'm intrigued by what I've read about subsequent books in this series (such as [book:Ink and Steel|2430620]), but I want to read them in order. Hopefully her use of mythology (or at least my comprehension of that use) will improve, allowing me fully immerse myself in the world of her Promethean Age rather than simply being a spectator.

2. Whiskey and Water

by Elizabeth Bear

Whiskey and Water cover image
Paperback, 431 pages
Roc, 2007

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Significantly better than the first book in this series, Whiskey and Water picks up the loose ends from Blood and Iron and sustains them through half the book, building to a much more satisfying climax consisting of multiple battles and tense magical standoffs. My gripe: why did I have to wait for book 2 for all that heavy worldbuilding to pay off?!

As with its predecessor, Whiskey and Water suffers from a surfeit of mythology and mythological characters, particularly when it comes to Devils. The complex, and apparently ineffable, rules of magic and Fae once again serve as the cornerstone for the major plots. This time around, I simply gave up trying to make sense of the magical guidelines and tried to enjoy the story. It worked. Sort of.

Several familiar characters return in this sequel, including Matthew Szczegielniak, Jane Andraste, Carel the Merlin, Morgan le Fey, Elaine (now Queen of the Daoine Sidhe), and the eponymous Kelpie, Whiskey. Joining them are some new faces: Kit Marlowe (the one and only); Devils Lucifer, Satan, and Christian (an unconvincing antagonist at best); archangel Michael; and several mortals who may or may not die over the course of the book. And again, it's difficult to tell who the "good guys" are.

Nominally, Matthew and his cohorts are supposed to be the protagonists. Jane Andraste serves as an antagonist, for her attempts to rebuild the Promethean Club may result in another war with Faerie. Meanwhile, Lucifer has his own agenda, as does the charming Christian, who poses as an apprentice to Jane. I found this aspect of the plot entirely unfulfilling. I never understood Christian's motivations—sheer malevolence, or was he working toward a greater plan?

There were few characters I could just sit back and enjoy. Donall Smith was one, because he seemed like a genuinely honest and good person. Like the other mortal characters, he suddenly becomes involved in an epic, centuries-old conflict. Unlike the other mortals, however, Donall actually has the guts to stand and fight. Aside from him, the best parts of Whiskey and Water happened around the climax of the book, when every petty conflict comes to a head simultaneously.

The rules that govern the Promethean Age seem too mutable. I'll again compare this series to the Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher. The Dresdenverse has a complex set of rules, but I seldom feel burdened or confused by them. However, that may be due to the excellent writing and characterization in the Dresden Files books. The Promethean Age series' complex ruleset may be its single worst feature, but it's the characters and conflicts upon which the success of these books rests. And for me at least, there's just too much magic, too many beings who are, at least from a human's very limited perspective, apparently omnipotent.

The preponderance of powerful beings presents a problem: when unstoppable force meets immovable object, something's got to give. When Dragon faces off against Prometheans, when Hell and Heaven duel, and when one Fae queen plots against the other, the battlefield quickly gets complicated, and the plot can become hard to follow. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Bear's problem is that she tries to do too much and is forced to try to balance too many characters and too many conflicts. As a result, while I enjoyed the book—particularly the ending—I'm still somewhat confused, and not entirely certain of exactly who won or even for whom I should have cheered. While I'm all for moral ambiguity, I like to at least have a hero.

3. Ink and Steel

by Elizabeth Bear

Ink and Steel cover image
Trade Paperback, 427 pages
Roc, 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Why, why did Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water precede this book?! Ink and Steel possesses the best qualities of its predecessors and few of their flaws. Elizabeth Bear's skill flourishes in an alternate Elizabethan England where Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare are agents for the Queen and have dealings with Fae.

By far, my reviews of the previous books singled out an overly-complicated mythology as the Promethean Age's major flaw. Ink and Steel retains much of the mythological basis present in the first two books, but it seems much less preoccupied about dancing around complicated rules. Only the teind, Faerie's seven-year tithe to Hell, plays a large role in this book, and that situation is easy enough to follow. There is no mention of the Dragon (yay) or Dragon Prince, and the concept of a Merlin appears only in passing.

Indeed,Ink and Steel benefits from a narrower focus and tighter, crisper storytelling. Now with fewer annoying human characters! Yes, I can actually like our two human protagonists, Marlowe and Shakespeare, something I had trouble doing with the human characters in the first two books. I credit much of this to the juxtaposition of Bear's fictitious Marlowe and Shakespeare with my own expectations for the characters based on what I know of their historical versions. Similarly, I quite enjoyed seeing Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (and the true author of Shakespeare's plays according to some) and Ben Jonson.

The conflicts in Ink and Steel are superior to the first two books in this series. As mentioned above, they are easier to understand, and on a level, far more personal. On one level,Ink and Steel is a love story; on another level, it's a political drama where words and songs, poetry and plays, are the weapons of choice. In leveraging the poignant verse of Shakespeare and Marlowe, Bear skilfully reinforces the latter theme.

Ink and Steel makes an important distinction between mortals and the creatures of Faerie and Hell, beyond the obvious differences in strengths and weaknesses. Marlowe and Shakespeare—who are as much legend to us as Morgan and Arthur are to them—are portrayed as brilliant, passionated, and flawed human beings. Yet at the same time, they possess qualities that the Fae envy. I feel like Bear was attempting to draw these conclusions in the first books, particularly with changeling characters, like Elaine the Seeker. However, it took her three tries to perfect the message.

So far I've only comparedInk and Steel to its two predecessors. How does it stand on its own merits?

As noted, Bear makes masterful use of the Elizabethan setting and characters. While your mileage may vary, I personally I have a weakness for historical fiction set in the Elizabethan era—particularly historical fiction done well. There are too many epistolary sections for my taste.

The narrative perspective ofInk and Steel is somewhat more detached than I'd like. That's not to say that we're devoid of glimpses into the hearts of our characters. But each "scene" is related in a very cursory way, with emphasis placed more on dialogue than description. However, I suppose it's necessary in order to preserve the pacing of the story, which takes place over several mortal years, and I wouldn't be surprised if Bear chose to do this to further emulate the structure of a play. Not that such reasons make it any better.…

But I mean … come on. William Shakespeare. Christopher Marlowe. Faerie. Hell. What's not to like? It's 400 pages of quality fantasy, none of which is set in New York, and none of which involves an amoral Dragon manipulating matters behind the scenes. Ink and Steel, owing to its setting, was the book that attracted me to the Promethean Age series; I chose to start at book 1 because I worried I'd like back story. Hopefully, this review will convince anyone similarly interested solely in The Stratford Man duology (this book and Hell and Earth) to skip right toInk and Steel. You won't miss anything.